Self-Connection Through Daily Mindfulness

If you are anything like me, you may have confused mindfulness with meditation; something requiring you to be in a certain space, a particular position and removed from distraction or other activity.

Well, I’ve come to learn that while mindfulness practice can be enhanced through meditation, they are not one in the same.

Mindfulness is about bringing conscious awareness and presence to what is right in front of us or perhaps, what is occurring within us as an emotional, physical, spiritual or intellectual sensation.

The Heart of the Matter

Before I had even heard the term mindfulness, I received a teaching that helped me to understand it more clearly today.

Many years ago, I attended a silent retreat centered in Buddhist meditation practice. We spent many hours in a seated position. Silent. During the course of the weekend, we were also introduced to chanting.

A space had been carved in the silence for a question and answer period on the last day of the retreat. Most of the questions focused on the accuracy of the chant; saying the right words, holding the right tone and doing it in the right order.

Our teacher for the weekend guided us to recognize that it was not about right or wrong, that the clarity of the words, the volume of the chant or the correct order or perfect pronunciation was not at the heart of the matter.

We were reminded that feeling into the practice was the most crucial element. The ability to hold a pure and objective intention to simply engage in the moment within our hearts would be more powerful than a day’s worth of disconnected chanting.

So, when mindfulness became a hot topic of conversation and sought after state of being, I was reminded of this learning as I struggled to understand what mindfulness would look like in my day to day life.

Some of the essential ingredients involved in mindfulness include acceptance, non-judgement, willingness to observe, openness to feeling, and release of resistance.

Mindfulness.  It’s a Gateway to Self-Connection

Here’s what I have noticed. Mindfulness leads to self-connection. Mindfulness is a pathway to self-connection. In self-connection, I have a front row seat to my own experience including the emotions, the feelings, the thoughts, the beliefs, the desires of my heart and I become intrigued and curious about this exploration.

Using mindfulness as a gateway to self-connection makes it easier to stay out of the stories that we often create in order to make sense of our circumstances in a logical and intellectual way. This can be helpful or harmful depending on the details of the storyline.

In a mindful place as you experience deeper levels of self-connection you can begin to cultivate a deeper capacity to witness yourself. You become the observer who is deeply present and engaged AND also open to whatever arises for you through your senses. And this is where self-compassion is born.

Self-compassion is the capacity to hold space for our own evolution and process without expecting it to be different in any way and to love ourselves through it all. There is no need to resist what we discover, no need to berate ourselves for anything and no need to fix. Self-compassion is the utter acceptance and unconditional love for you.

And guess what? This depth of self-connection and self-compassion expands your ability to offer connection and compassion to others. Real, genuine, authentic connection and compassion.

Is there anything more powerful than that within the context of transformative relationships?

It is a practice that deepens your experience of joy and softens your times of sorrow. It is a practice that provides a glimpse, moment by moment into your authentic nature. Your most powerful gifts of service to others is found right there.

With a mindful approach, you can move away from “right and wrong,”  step out of the contrast of “good and bad” and embrace what is in this moment. The only “right and wrong” that becomes important is what feels right or wrong to your own heart.

Mindfulness Shows Promise as We Age, but Study Results Are Mixed

COLUMBUS, Ohio – As mindfulness practices rise in popularity and evidence of their worth continues to accumulate, those who work with aging populations are looking to use the techniques to boost cognitive, emotional and physiological health.

But studies so far have shown mixed results in the elderly, and more investigation is needed to determine exactly how best to apply mindfulness in that population, a new review of the research to date has found.

A majority of the 27 studies in the review suggest that the focused attention at the core of mindfulness benefits older people, but others don’t point to improvements. And that should prompt more rigorous investigations in search of interventions likely to do the most good, researchers from The Ohio State University found. Their analysis appears in the journal Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience.

“Mindfulness is a practice that really serves as a way to foster a greater quality of life and there’s been some thought that it could help with cognitive decline as we age,” said Stephanie Fountain-Zaragoza, lead author of the study and a graduate student in psychology.

“Given the growing interest in mindfulness in general, we wanted to determine what we know right now so that researchers can think about where we go from here,” she said.

The good news so far: The evidence from a variety of studies points to some benefits for older adults, suggesting that mindfulness training might be integrated into senior centers and group homes, the researchers found.

Older people are an especially important population to study given diminished social support, physical limitations and changes in cognitive health, the researchers point out.

Studies of mindfulness meditation usually involve three types of practices. The first, focused attention, involves sustained attention to a single thing (such as the breath) and an effort to disengage from other distractions.

Open monitoring meditation, often seen as the next step up in mindfulness, includes acknowledging the details of multiple phenomena (sensations, sounds, etc.) without selectively focusing on one of them.

“This includes being open to experiencing thoughts and sensations and emotions and taking them as they come and letting them go,” Fountain-Zaragoza said.

Loving-kindness meditation encourages a universal state of love and compassion toward oneself and others.

“The goal with this is to foster compassionate acceptance,” said senior author Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, director of Ohio State’s clinical neuroscience laboratory and an expert in mindfulness.

In addition to looking at how mindfulness contributed – or did not – to behavioral and cognitive functioning and to psychological wellbeing, some of the research also looked at its potential role in inflammation, which contributes to a variety of diseases.

In all categories of study, including inflammatory processes, Prakash and Fountain-Zaragoza found mixed results.

The hope is that mindfulness could help the elderly preserve attention and capitalize on emotional regulation strategies that naturally improve as we age, Prakash said.

“Around 50 percent of our lives, our minds are wandering and research from Harvard University has shown that the more your mind wanders, the less happy you are,” she said.

“Mindfulness allows you to become aware of that chaotic mind-wandering and provides a safe space to just breathe.”

In older people, mindfulness ideally has the potential to help with cognition, emotion and inflammation, but little research has been done so far and those studies that have been done have had mixed results and scientific limitations.

While most of the studies in the review showed positive results, the field is limited and would benefit greatly from larger randomized controlled trials, Fountain-Zaragoza said.

“We want to really be able to say that we have strong evidence that mindfulness is driving the changes we see,” she said.

Life Skills for the Digital Age: Choosing the Right Technology

In the last few months, I have been thinking a lot about the skills and knowledge that we need for the digital age. I’m not talking about technology skills, but life skills. In his book, Hamlet’s Blackberry, author William Powers observes that every new technology both solves problems and creates new challenges. He discusses the need, now that we are increasingly connected, to learn the art of disconnecting so we can deepen our both our real life and online experiences.

Disconnecting is not the only skill that we are now being challenged to learn. After a recent podcast interview that I did with Dr. Faye Mishna on cyberbullying and then witnessing several escalating email conflicts among colleagues, I am convinced that there are several new social skills needed to effectively manage relationships in the digital age, or at least the knowledge about where and when to apply skills in these new contexts.

In my own struggles to work productively, I realize that much of what I have struggled with recently has focused on figuring out how to effectively integrate technology into my work and personal life, and how to make sure that I, not the technology, am the one making choices about how and when to be connected.

Here are some questions I have considered that relate to some of the new skills and knowledge we are each now challenged to learn:

  • What social interactions are ideal for text messaging? Chat? Email? Which are not?
  • When does an interaction need to move from a text-based platform, to one that involves voice? Images? Face to face?
  • What is appropriate to share about your workplace on your blog/Facebook/Twitter? About your life?
  • What work tasks are best completed when connected to the Internet? Disconnected?
  • How can we set up our work areas/screens so we can maximize our ability to focus?
  • What evening routines (relative to technology/electronics) promote relaxation and restful sleep?
  • What’s the right balance between technology and non-technology-based activities for free time? What combination will result a true feeling of fulfillment at the end of the day?

As I look through that list, I realize how much of what I read these days focuses on just these issues, e.g., don’t read email first thing in the morning, problems with managing conflict through email/chat/IM, research on how backlit screens disrupt sleep. We are sharing our new life management insights over Twitter, the blogosphere, and productivity books–together we are creating a new knowledge base.

However, I am also aware of how uneven the knowledge dissemination can be and how much students, colleagues, friends, family, and for those of us doing clinical practice, our clients, may vary in how much they know or have even thought about these issues. And I wonder about how kids will learn what they need to know as they negotiate the world if the adults in their lives lag behind (or dismiss) the technologies they are interacting with.

Paradoxically, at the same time our new technologies are challenging us to learn new skills, there are some very old skills that are becoming increasingly relevant. Mindfulness (being fully present in the here and now while also having awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings) is the one that most strongly comes to mind as I review our current challenges. In living mindfully, I am able to observe and learn about how my choices and habits affect me, therefore I can learn from watching myself interact with the world. Perhaps this is the skill we need to be really focusing on as well as the skill we need to teach our children.

What skills or knowledge would you add to the lists I have started?

Cultivating Resilience in Children

Cultivating Resilience in Children

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of childhood resilience. In fact, this inquisitiveness led me to a career in child psychology and the non profit sector working with the world’s most disadvantaged children. I’ve made it my life’s work to understand how trauma affects children and help them to cope with it. The curiosity came out of an eagerness to understand my own profound resiliency after having a childhood of chaos.

Shortly after the death of my mother, when I was a six-month-old infant, I was diagnosed with ‘failure to thrive’. My body simply wouldn’t grow until I felt safe and loved. Understandably, my father couldn’t cope with looking after an infant at that time and I was given away to be raised by relatives in another country.

By the age of three, I was given back to my father. One doesn’t have to be a psychologist to imagine the kind of trauma the first three years of my life entailed. The rest of my childhood and adolescence was filled with more hardship and challenges. And yet even though I faced so much adversity, I managed to overcome it. I ‘made it’. As a young adult, I was always told things like: ‘You must have had a guardian angel looking after you’ or ‘You’re really lucky’.

This led me to want to understand why some children are more resilient than others. Is it luck? Is it genetics? Is it the quality of relationships in the child’s life? And is there something we can do to cultivate resiliency in children so that when faced with life’s challenges they are able to cope and manage these situations?

Of course my childhood is on the extreme side of the spectrum but the reality is that all children will face some challenges in life whether at school or home. As parents, we want to bubble wrap our children keeping them from risk and harm. However, children require learning how to try and fail. They need to understand that not all stress is bad. As Dr. Bruce Perry’s renowned research has proven, ‘resilient children are made, not born.’ Research has identified a common set of factors that predispose children to positive outcomes in the face of adversity. I recently spent two days in Vancouver, B.C. at the Heart-Mind 2016 Conference on Cultivating Resilience by the Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education.

The Dalai Lama Center for Peace and Education is focused on children’s social and emotional development. They call it fostering Heart-Mind well-being. Providing children with the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage their emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions which has been proven to not only improve their well-being but also improves their academic performance.

During the two day conference, parents, caregivers, and educators were informed of the latest research on how to promote resilience in children. Here’s everything you need to know and some free (and really cool!) resources:

5 Ways to Cultivate Resilience in Children

1. Relationships: The single most common factor for children who develop resilience is at least one stable and committed relationship with a supportive parent, caregiver, or other adult such as a teacher. The quantity and quality of relationships in a child’s life is key.

2. Altruism: Children can be empowered by helping others. Engage your child in age-appropriate volunteer work which gives the child a sense of purpose and meaning. For ideas you can check out my previous post.

3. Self Efficacy: Teach your children that they have a sense of control in their life. Enable them to believe in their power to change their own life.

4. Self Regulation: Provide opportunities for your children to strengthen their adaptive skills and self-regulatory capacities through tools such as mindfulness. Mindfulness creates structural and functional changes in the brain that support a healthy response to stress.

5. Culture and Language: Mobilise sources of faith, hope, and cultural traditions in your children. In order to be resilient the child needs a strong sense of self and identity. The more solid and rooted the child, the more resilient they will be. Children need a sense of family, it can be biological or anyone else that makes the child feel loved the feeling is reciprocated. A sense of community is important for the child to feel that they belong.

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Co-Creating Community ~ The Role of Corporate Mindfulness

barrett-values-centre-cultural-transformation-tools-overview-2012-ctt-overview-2012-9-728As much as we might resist the idea, society is the collective body with all of us. We are an integral element of society. It is tempting to think in terms of “us” and “them” whoever “they” may be. You can apply this in relation to society at large, your community, your organization, your team, and your family, for example. In any group that you are a part of, you are actively contributing to the overall energy all the time whether it feels that way or not.

You are influenced by the structures and systems you live within and you, in turn, influence these same structures and systems.

Deep personal responsibility ~ yes! Expanded capacity for freedom ~ absolutely! Totally worth it ~ you betcha!

The community does not exist without the individuals. However, as a community develops and grows, shifts and changes, the community itself becomes an energetic being that is created through the collective consciousness of the people involved.

Where to Begin?

What I am about to say next will probably not come as a surprise.

It starts with you.

As you may be aware by now, one of the foundational components of The Conscious Service Approach is Self-Connection. As you grow in your capacity for self-connection, you automatically enhance your contribution as a co-creator of any community you belong to.

You are contributing all the time – so the questions become, “what do I wish to contribute?” and “how do I wish to contribute?”

What is Contribution?

Let’s talk a bit about what it means to contribute. At first glance, it might seem that contribution is active and obvious. Consider for a moment, that you are also contributing on an energetic and emotional level. It is not always about what we say or do ~ or don’t say or do for that matter ~ it is often just about how we “be.”

Active ~ not always. Dynamic ~ for sure.

Are you present?

Are you engaged?

Are you open-hearted?

As you establish practices that allow you to reflect upon and answer questions like these, you will come to know a deeper sense of self-connection and ultimately bring more of your authentic self to your communities.

How Does Mindfulness Fit?

Practicing mindfulness at the corporate or organizational level is a path towards meaningful co-creation of community.

So what is mindfulness anyways? Mindfulness has often been perceived as meditation. And while meditation is a part of the development of mindfulness, they are not one in the same.

To practice mindfulness does not require that you lock yourself in the supply room for an hour with eyes closed and legs crossed. To be mindful is to be present and engaged, not only with other people and external experiences, but first and foremost, with yourself.

Corporate Mindfulness creates a space for individual authenticity and creativity. It offers a process for the resolution of conflict and thoughtful decision-making. Corporate Mindfulness provides an opportunity for the expression of the individual in ways that are supportive and safe and offers an avenue towards personal joy and fulfillment. And all the while, encourages a sense of connection and belonging ~ investment in the greater good that is possible when we truly walk together.

Corporate Mindfulness creates a space for Conscious Service at the Community level.

In a world that is often fraught with competition, comparison, instant gratification, and achieving outcomes at any cost, the potential benefits of corporate mindfulness feel like a much needed and long awaited breath of fresh air.

The Mindful Moment

Close your eyes and imagine what it would feel like to wake up each morning filled with anticipation for the day that lay ahead of you. Imagine that you are filled with excitement at the opportunities you have each day to contribute in ways that are meaningful for you with people you feel connected to within a community that encourages your engagement and your sense of fulfillment.

Organizations like that can do anything.

Energized, engaged, and connected communities have greater capacity for problem solving, decision-making, innovation, and leadership.

Who doesn’t want to be part of something like that?

Join Us for a Conversation about Corporate Mindfulness

In response to the old adage “There is no I in Team,” my next guest on Serving Consciously ~ Jivi Saran says, “There is no Team without the I.”

And if you like we can take that a step further. If you rearrange the letters in Team, you will eventually find a “me.” We cannot get away from ourselves as an integral part of any group process.

If I don’t bring me to the team process, then I won’t be there!

Co-Creating Community – The Role of Corporate Mindfulness is the topic of the next episode of Serving Consciously on Friday October 14 at 12:00 noon (PST) on www.ctrnetwork.com.

Next week, I will introduce you to my guest for that show. Her name is Jivi Saran of Winds of Change . Jivi is a Mindfulness expert with many years experience in the area of Corporate Mindfulness. I hope you can join us for what is sure to be an enlightening and entertaining discussion. I can’t wait to tell you more about Jivi in next week’s article.

An Easy-to-Use Guide to Incidental Mindfulness: A Mini Rest for the Busy Brain

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Artwork created by Author Felicity Mary Cross

Do you constantly live in the future, or in the past? Are you constantly planning ahead or thinking over and over about past events?  Do you experience a million racing thoughts, like what groceries to buy, did you put the washing on, have you paid bills, when to pick up the kids and who’s going to what sports and when?

We live in an era of business. We are constantly on the move, juggling multiple jobs, roles and responsibilities. No previous generation has been as time poor, or had as many competing concerns as we have, it is a chaotic affair just to juggle work and children and life. And all those constant and intrusive thoughts make for busy heads. Being busy by definition means we have little time to counteract this with relaxation or rest, let alone any great mental health relaxation training techniques. Who has the time for meditation, not I and I bet not you!

Mindfulness is a buzz word we hear a lot these days, but the positive effects of Mindfulness training are not disputed because it works. Mindfulness is literally a practice that involves pulling our thoughts back from that chaotic level of everyday thought, and thinking purely in the moment.

Focusing on what’s being experienced right now. In Mindfulness practice, we are promoting a certain quieting of the busy mind. Unlike meditation where you are required to empty your mind of thoughts which can be quite difficult without extensive practice, mindfulness practice allows you to still let your mind work and let thoughts occur. The point is to make these thoughts moment specific and simple.

The theory is that by doing this simple exercise you can reduce stress and increase your well-being. But again who has time to follow a mindfulness regime?

The answer is all of us. We don’t have to make mindfulness a long drawn out affair; we can practice a simplified form called Incidental Mindfulness. Incidental Mindfulness is literally taking a small moment in your day to practice Mindfulness; this moment can literally be 30 seconds to a few minutes, for example:

  • When you are washing up, try to stop your busy thoughts and really focus on being in the moment, making your thoughts specific to that very moment: how does the warm water feel on your hands, how the soap feels against your skin, slippery against the dishes. Try to quiet your thoughts by just focusing on what you are feeling and being fully present and planted in that moment.
  • Or, sit wherever you happen to be and focus on your surroundings. Again try to quiet your mind and let go of the chaotic everyday thoughts and think about how your body feels sitting in the chair, be aware of your surroundings, smells, sounds, and sights, let the thoughts flow in and out of your mind i.e. I hear a bird chirping, a car driving by, my legs are relaxed or sore. Noticing immediate feelings and thoughts, being fully present in that moment and in that place.
  • When you are eating or drinking, for example having a cup of tea. Take a moment to stop and think about how the cup feels warm in your hands, how the tea tastes, the sensation of the warm tea down your throat, if you can smell your tea. Noticing all the physical sensations of drinking your tea, and how that makes you feel, again being fully present and pulling your thoughts right back to the immediate sensations and thoughts.
  • When you are in the shower focusing on washing your body, try using your non-dominate hand (if you are right handed or try using your left hand). Fully noticing your motions/actions and how that feels, if it is awkward or uncomfortable; how your skin feels and the sensation of the wash cloth on your skin, the sound of the running water. Looking intently at your hands, your legs, noticing all your limbs, how they look and how they feeling. Again fully noticing all your physical sensations, using your senses, touch, smell, sight and hearing.

As you can see anyone can practice Incidental Mindfulness, at any time, in any place! Find an activity that works for you, and one that is easy and non-disruptive to your busy life. This practice is meant to reduce stress, not add stress, so please remember the one and only rule: keep it simple. We wish you improved health and well-being through helpful, easy-to-use Incidental Mindfulness to begin de-cluttering your busy brains.

7 Things Every Clinician Should Know About Introverts

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It’s not unusual for introverts to run across prejudice, even in the clinical setting. They are encouraged by spouses, bosses, and some therapists to be more “outgoing,” “on,” “cheerful,” and “energetic.” They are told that if they put more effort into what amounts to an extroverted way of being, that they will be happier, enjoy more success at work, and please the people around them.

Susan Cain makes the case in her bestselling Quiet that this bias stems from a culture that is predominated by extroverted ideals coupled with a misunderstanding of what constitutes introversion. As a psychotherapist who’s an introvert, I’ve developed an interest in this topic both personally and professionally. Here are some of the observations I’ve made about my clinical practice.

1. Introversion is normal.

Introversion/extroversion is one of the basic dimensions of personality. A preference for an introverted way of being is normal and includes more time for solitude, not wanting to assert oneself in a self-promotional way at work and other social situations, and a preference for, and even preoccupation with introspection.

Introversion is not synonymous with shyness, depression, or schizoid tendencies. It does, however, overlap with Elaine Aron’s concept of high sensitivity. Introverts are not misanthropes. Most have social skills comparable to extroverts.

Introversion and extroversion exist along a continuum and, according to Myers Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) data, may be normally distributed. Therefore most people (two out of three) will be within one standard deviation of the mean and will have well expressed introvert and extrovert traits. Because of the need to act extroverted in many work and social situations, people who have an introverted center of gravity may wittingly or unwittingly be acting in extroverted manner. Having a better understanding of what it is to be an introvert can empower people to be more authentic and to practice better self-care.

2. You may be an introvert yourself.

Many helping professionals are introverts. They are drawn to counseling work by an interest in the inner workings of the mind and a preference for significant, one-on-one conversations. Even though the work is meaningful, it can be draining. If you are not predominately an extrovert, you will have to work to restore your energy from doing the work to offset exhaustion. Mindfulness can help with this process of energy restoration

3. There are methodological issues measuring introversion.

The most common research method for measuring introversion doesn’t measure introversion but rather the degree of extraversion that is present. Researchers Peter Hills and Michael Argyle are some of the few researchers to identify the anti-introvert bias present in research. They lament, “The view that extroversion is a preferred state has come to be widely accepted among social psychologists. In consequence, introverts are sometimes represented as withdrawn, isolated or lacking social competence, rather than as individuals who seek independence and autonomy.”

4. The culture is biased against introverts

Psychotherapist Ester Schaler Bucholz in her book The Call of Solitude pointed out, “Health professionals are actually not that different from the average person. Like a relative or companion, they may see the self-possessed introspective person as less malleable, less normal.” They differ in how they feel when those skills are expressed and the situations they prefer to express them within. For example, I prefer an in depth conversation to small talk of the cocktail party variety. My appetite for socialization differs in that I feel a strong need for compensatory solitude after most social forays.

5. You probably have a lot of introverts in your clinical practice

Psychotherapist and introvert advocate Laurie Helgoe discusses in her book Introvert Power that introverts are more introspective and curious about their inner life and therefore more prone to present to treatment. This could create a bias since the depressed or anxious introverts are sitting in your consulting room in greater numbers than extroverts with the same degree of symptoms. They don’t have more psychopathology, just more willingness to address it

6. Mindfulness is a powerful tool for introverts

Introspection has its own set of pitfalls: rumination, obsession, and worry. Introverts can get stuck in their stories and may need help getting out of their heads and into the present moment. As the embodied practice of awareness to this moment, mindfulness is an ideal fit for introverts. Mindfulness meditation practice can help them (and everyone) to better navigate the interior dimensions of the mind to foster creative imagination while mitigating rumination.

7. Introverted ways of being can be helpful for introverts and extroverts alike

As a culture, we have gotten out of balance and squeezed quiet and solitude out of our lives. This, no doubt, contributes to the stressfulness of life. We work longer hours, devote more time to children, and have access to 24/7 information and social media. Mindfulness meditation can help to restore quiet solitude in everyone’s lives. Extroverts can benefit from more quiet; introverts desperately need it.

Mindfulness Practice and Self-Care for Introverted Social Workers

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We are drawn to service work for many reasons. We want to help others, we find human beings fascinating, and we are called to make ourselves available to the suffering of others. The work can be engaging, demanding, and draining. For those of us who are introverts, the energy expending and restoring aspects of the work can be critical.

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The introverted brain is more active and stimulated relative to the extroverted brain. Because of this, extroverts will feed off the energy of social interactions while introverts will get drained. The type of interaction matters such that superficial banter is more exhausting than a deeper conversation. However, social energy expenditures need to be followed by periods of restoration in order to prevent burnout. The quality of our attention also matters to how energy is spent and during work time. We can bring mindful attention to our practice and, through that presence, engage in higher quality care and self-care simultaneously.

The default mode of the brain is self-talk. Neuroscientists have confirmed this self-referential thinking as the default mode network of the brain (DMN) and have mapped its pattern of activation. This is how we spend much of our time—engaged in storytelling, projecting ourselves into the future, dragging along the past, and generating opinions about the present. As introverts, we may be more prone to this internalized self-talk.

In clinician groups that I train in mindfulness that often include social workers, I survey the participants and ask them how often their DMN is active during sessions with clients. The range spans approximately 30 to 70 percent of attention on the task at hand and the rest rattling around loose in imagination. The average tends to be 50 percent. We are all well-meaning and care for the people we serve, but these informal surveys reveal that we can do a lot to improve our attention. Closing this gap and shifting from the DMN to the experience of the encounter-at-hand will, no doubt, make us more empathetic.

A regular practice of mindfulness meditation can help us to be more present. Studies by Yale’s Judson Brewer and others have shown that experienced mindfulness practitioners can more readily withdraw attention from the DMN and redirect to the embodied experience of the present moment. In addition to a regular meditation practice, you can bring mindful attention into your work hours.

Mindfulness works by focusing attention on something happening in the present moment such as the physical sensations of breathing. Each time attention moves away from the breath to the DMN, you refocus your attention on the breath. This process is repeated as needed, which is usually quite a lot!

I teach a technique that I simply call “divided attention.” If, as the survey suggested, a large chunk of our attention is not with our client, then we can take let’s say 10 percent of that attention and ground it on the breath. That is, we aim to be mindful during the service time such that we speak and listen with an awareness of our breathing body. Now, close to 90 percent of our attention is with our person because we have steered our attention away from the DMN.

This kind of attention takes practice. It’s easy to get caught up in the stories of the moment—our own and those of the people we treat. Having a regular daily silent meditation practice can help us to develop the skills necessary to be mindful while communicating. When we bring our full presence to the work, it tends to be less exhausting because we are getting the benefits of mindfulness practice through the service hour. Mindfulness helps us to bring a sacred attention to the work. It conveys that we care deeply enough to be present and becomes the vehicle of that presence. Compassion, empathy, and equanimity will follow.

We can also take the moments between sessions to have mindful breaks. Instead of peering into your smart phone, take three minutes to be with your body and mind. These little mindfulness hits can help to keep your energy tuned during the workday.

Mindfulness practice is a form of quiet solitude that is especially important for those of us who are introverts. It can be beneficial for everyone, but we need it for restoration of energy. Being mindful during sessions, as suggested above, can help to offset the energy drain that inevitably occurs in social work. Getting yourself on the cushion on a daily basis will also help to build a foundation of energy that can be drawn upon in all the challenging situations of your life.

Create Your Own Sensory Balls (aka “Stress Balls”)

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Supplies

  • Water bottle (the small 8 oz ones are the perfect size)
  • Funnel (optional)
  • 2 Balloons
  • ~1/2 cup filler material (see below)
  • Scissors

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Step 1: Fill the Bottle

  • Provide lots of options for sensory substances to select from (corn starch, flour, salt, rice, quinoa, gel, etc.)  My favorite are the soft fillers.
  • Then fill the small bottle half way (a funnel is sometimes helpful).

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Step 2: Blow Up Balloon

  • Blow up the balloon while practicing slow, deep breaths.
  • For children that are working on controlling anger, this is also a good time to teach the “anger-balloon analogy.”
  • One person pinches along the base of the neck (as to not let out the air too soon), while the other secures the balloon to the top of the water bottle.

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Step 3: Fill The Balloon

  • Pick up the bottle and flip it upside-down to fill the balloon.
  • Then pinch the balloon’s neck and  remove it from the rim of the bottle.
  • Alternatively, instead of blowing up the balloon and using a water bottle, you could put the funnel directly into the balloon (this is a little difficult if you want a larger ball)

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Step 4: Let the Air Out

  • Pinch the neck and let the air out very slowly.  If you do it too fast then the filling may fly out (especially if you are using a soft material like cornstarch or flour).
  • Squeeze out all of the remaining air.  If there is still air inside when the balloon is tied, the second balloon will not go on correctly.
  • If the ball is not your desired size, you can blow a little more air into the balloon and put it back on the bottle to dump more filler in or out.

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Step 5: Secure The Balloon

  • Run your fingers down the neck of the balloon to push down any filling.
  • Then tie off the end of the balloon.  At this point you can be finished if you don’t mind your stress ball looking clearly like a balloon, or use a second balloon to create a rounder/sleeker look and make a rupture less likely.
  • Cut off the balloon’s tail, just above the knot.
  • Cut the neck off balloon 2 (red in the photo below) and stretch out the opening.  Put balloon 1 inside (knot-side first), and wrap balloon 2 around balloon 1.
  • Another method is to cut both ends off of a balloon, which you use to cover the tied-off end of the balloon and create a stripe down the middle. This will hide the knot and give the ball a round shape. Depending on the size of the ball, the stripe may have a tendency to slip off.  I like to double bag the ball no matter what and then add a stripe on top of that if desired.

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Finished Product

  • Round out the ball with your hands and you are finished.
  • Stress balls are great because they can be used in a number of ways to meet the specific needs of a client (developing body awareness, as a sensory activity, mindfulness task, anger management, teaching progressive muscle relaxation, etc.).

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Ursula Unwinds Her Anger: A Mindfulness Book for Children

Kristina Marcelli Sargent is a mental health therapist who works with children in both outpatient and community based settings.  After competing an art degree, Kristina went onto get her MSW and now combines her creative talents with her passion for mental health through her beautifully illustrated books aimed at enhancing socio-emotional development.

Teaching Mindfulness to Children

One of Kristina’s recent passions has been to teach young children mindfulness as a way for children to have some inner peace and inner safety despite their outer life circumstances. Mindfulness, put simply, is awareness in the present moment while noticing thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, feelings, and the surrounding environment in the moment instead of getting caught up in the thoughts and worries of past and future.

Although many people are familiar with this being very helpful for adults, this is also an excellent skill for children to learn too. Awareness is the foundation to all life experiences and skills. When children increase their awareness in the present moment, they can increase attentive skills, better regulate their feelings, make safe choices, and notice and attend others’ feelings. When children notice others’ feelings, beautiful things like empathy, kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and appropriate assertiveness skills can begin to grow.

Ursula Unwinds Her Anger

“Ursula Unwinds Her Anger” is a story about a dragon who doesn’t feel like she quite fits in with the dolphins she lives with but discovers she has a special talent.  She changes colors with her feelings and uses this skill to teach others about feelings.  The book teaches children mindfulness and relaxation skills such as deep breathing and noticing feelings while also letting them go. It is intended to help children discover inner peace and self acceptance and thus act in peaceful ways.

One of the most important things about dealing with anger is realizing it’s okay to be angry and there are safe ways to express it. In this story, the idea of using visualization and relaxation to “breathe” anger out is introduced as a relaxation technique for angry feelings. This book is accessible for children ages 3-10 and the adults in their lives who care about them.  It introduces a fun way to think about feelings using color and lends itself to endless play and art activities to accompany the story.  

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Ursula Unwinds Her Anger available on Amazon

Accompanying Activities: Kristina created a number of engaging activities to accompany the book that add more depth to the reading experience and reinforce the book’s message.  Follow the links below to view instructions and download printables for activities designed to compliment the story.

  • Unwind Your Anger Printable Activity:  This printable Ursula the dragon includes fire for children to write or draw what makes them angry that they would like to breathe out and let go of in their own lives.  Children identify their own feelings along with anger triggers and end the activity with a deep breathing exercise.
  • Feelings Colors Worksheet: After reading the book, see if the child remembers the colors Ursula would turn with her different feelings in the story. Then have the child draw herself in the spaces above Ursula and identify which color she would turn if she turned colors with her feelings too!
  • Printable Feelings Cube: Color, cut, and tape to make your own feelings cube! Then take turns rolling the cube and either acting out the feeling (having the other person guess) or telling a time you felt that way! Another way to play is to tell okay things to do with the feeling that was rolled. For example, “it’s okay to be angry. When I’m angry, I like to take a quiet break.”

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Other Works

Kristina’s first book, Buttons the Brave Blue Kitten, is a story designed to help children (aged ~3-8) develop empathy, the ability to see how someone else is feeling from the other’s perspective.

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Buttons the Brave Blue Kitten available on Amazon

 

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